Religious Imprinting & Jihadism
September 22, 2008
Religious belief is
emotional at its core. And emotions are not governed by logic or reason.
Becoming religious is similar to imprinting, most dramatically seen in
ducklings. During a critical period of time after hatching the ducklings
become imprinted on any moving object—be it the mother duck, a
mechanical duck, or a moving human. It doesn’t matter. The ducklings
simply follow the initially moving object.
Religion, for most
part, is infused into the mind of children from the moment of birth.
Early childhood is the time that children are most imprintable. The
strength and permanence of this imprinting process depend on a variety
of influences. Over time, some people retain the initial imprint and
strengthen it, some adopt a middle course, and some might even discard
it altogether. A significant number in any religious faith becomes
extremely committed to the extent that they are willing to kill others
and themselves in the service of their religion.
The human mind is a
battleground of contending forces where the two most powerful are reason
and emotion: where reason assesses life and produces measures that are
adaptive, to the best of its ability; while emotion, by-and-large,
operates on feelings. Ordinarily, an uneasy truce prevails between the
two generally incompatible powers.
In many situations, the
clash between dictates of reason and promptings of emotion result in
intra-psychic conflicts. In any given case, the conflict may settle by
one party getting its way, reaching a compromise, or a deadlock
producing paralysis of inaction.
Beliefs, as is the case
with all living and non-living complex systems, are targeted by forces
that aim to break them down. In the case of beliefs, any threatening
event, particularly when severe, produces great anxiety in the believer.
aversive reaction. The mind deals with anxiety by a mix of chemical and
psychological measures. On the psychological side there are defense
mechanisms such as rationalization and denial. Both these measures
reduce the debilitating impact of anxiety by the person literally
misleading himself. Rationalization supplies faulty reasoning by telling
the person that the bad thing, or the threat, is not all that bad; while
denial completely refuses to admit it exists. Alcoholism, for instance,
is known as the disease of denial since the alcoholic denies that he is
an alcoholic even in the face of irrefutable objective evidence.
emotional underpinning spawns fanaticism in some of the adherents, since
fanaticism is seen as a reflection of one’s true loyalty and strong
Beliefs, be they
religious or otherwise, are tied to a central figure such as a prophet,
a philosopher, or a social reformer. Particularly in religion, the
central figure and his high disciples occupy a rarefied, nearly
It is a human tendency
to find a source or a person to whom he can attribute powers and
qualities that he himself yearns for, yet he lacks—a father surrogate.
People age, but the insecure child within remains at the core of many.
It is the child within that attaches himself to an omnipotent father
The founder of a
religion presents to the child within the lost father he no longer has
or he never had. It is for this reason that the founder of a religion is
held at the highest esteem and his edicts are obeyed wholeheartedly by
his followers. The believers’ degree of devotion is in direct proportion
to the hierarchy of the religious authorities.
In the case of the
12-Imamate Shi’a Islam, for instance, the Imams filled the void that was
created by Muhammad’s death. Hence, the Imams are revered with a degree
of devotion only one notch below Muhammad himself. In time, the Imams
also died. Yet the need for a tangible father-figure remained. The
Shiites filled that void by transferring their attachments to a cadre of
religious authorities ranging from the highest-ranking Grand Ayatollahs,
followed by Ayatollahs, the Hujat-ul-Islams (Islamic adjudicators), and
all the way down to the village mullah.
powers and capabilities to the father surrogate not only compels the
person to ward off anything that threatens to undermine his belief, but
to do what he can to further solidify it. This process of protecting
one’s belief and shoring it up frequently results in strong emotional
attachment to the leader. In a real sense, people see the person as an
omnipotent father figure—their savior—who would guide them and minister
to their needs not only in this world, but also in the afterlife.
As is the case in all
attachments, a price must be paid. The price is often commensurate with
the degree of attachment. A religious fanatic is a rigidly-attached
believer who is captive of his own emotional excesses. This emotional
excess, given the right context, will overrule the dictates of reason
and compels the fanatic to carry out any abhorrent act demanded of him
rather than sever his emotional fixation on the righteousness of his
belief and the authority of his belief leaders.
Islam is an intensely
emotional authoritarian system of belief. Hence, Islam induces powerful
emotional imprinting in a large percentage of its adherents. It is from
this segment of the Muslims that the fanatic jihadists arise and pose
existential threat to the "other.” The jihadists are rigidly-imprinted
foot-soldier Islamic automatons that have little choice but to carry out
the fatwa and dictates of their high-ranking religious leaders such as
the Ayatollahs in the case of the Shi’a and Muftis for the Sunni.
For as long as
Muslim high priests retain their stranglehold on the masses of Muslims,
generation after generation of father-figure seeking jihadists will turn
to them, revere them, and carry out their violent decrees obediently.